Commuters wearing face masks at JR Shinagawa Station in Tokyo. Photo: AFP/Yomiuri Shimbun

SEOUL – Health experts and authorities in Japan and South Korea face a sleepless weekend as the waves of a resurgent Covid-19 roll across both countries.

If cases continue to climb, increased social distancing guidelines may be unavoidable in each of them next week.

“For the past two weeks, we have seen a pattern of growth in cases following the weekend period,” South Korean Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun warned on Friday. “How we spend this coming weekend will decide whether we see a further expansion of new cases next week.”

Officials in both countries are loath to place greater restrictions on their publics.

Japan’s government is in no mood to dampen commercial activity given that the country saw a very welcome 5% economic rebound in the third quarter.

It continues to operate a nationwide “Go To” subsidized travel scheme to assist a domestic tourism sector hammered by not just the near-total disappearance of international tourists, but the postponement of an eagerly anticipated Summer Olympics.

Posters of the ‘Go To’ Travel campaign are displayed in Sapporo, Hokkaido on Nov. 21, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via The Yomiuri Shimbun

There was no evidence that the travel program was the main cause of the surge, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told the Diet on Wednesday, adding in an address to to the leader of the opposition, “If you have a better idea, I’m open to hearing it.”

The current increase in caseloads is coming at the worst possible moment for Korea. The country has delayed its annual KSAT – university entrance exam – due to Covid-19, but is set to hold it nationwide on Thursday. In an education-obsessed society, the KSAT is of immense importance to those who sit the exam, placing enormous stress loads on both pupils and their families.

Moreover, the greater Seoul area, home to half Korea’s population, raised social distancing guidelines on Tuesday. Among other steps, these require restaurants and sports facilities to close at 9 pm, and disallow cafes from serving in-house. There are fears that raising the guidelines will have a socio-economic impact.

“If we rush to elevate the social distancing level, there could be side effects,” Sohn Young-rae, a senior health official told local media. Sohn noted that some 910,000 business facilities in the capital region are currently affected.

By the numbers

According to the daily change dashboard data from Wikipedia’s Covid tracking service for Japan, (population: 126 million) the country saw 1,861 new infections on Thursday, 1,471 on Wednesday, 1,571 on Tuesday, 2,179 on Monday and a record daily high of 2,514 on Sunday.

These numbers are trending higher than the numbers experienced in the country’s first wave. Prior to the current outbreak, Japan’s previous record peak for new cases had been 1,998 on August 3.

In South Korea (population: 52 million), according to the Korean CDC, as reported by Yonhap news agency, the number of infections hit 569 on Friday, after 583 on Thursday.

Those figures marked the first time that the national caseload of new infections has exceeded 500 for two straight days since the height of the first wave of infections in late February.

A religious evangelist wearing a face mask as part of government-mandated measures stands on a street in the student district of Hongdae in Seoul. Photo: Ed Jones/AFP

Even so, the Northeast Asia neighbors both proved largely successful in containing the virus earlier this year, certainly more so than the European Union or United States.

As per data from Worldometers, the US has suffered 13.2 million infections and  269,597 dead – or 813 deaths per million of population. The United Kingdom has suffered 1.5 million infections and 57,031 deaths, or 838 deaths per million. And Germany has suffered over 1 million infections and 15, 767 deaths – or 188 deaths per million.

Japan, which is at special risk given that it is home to the world’s oldest population, has suffered 137,261 cases and 2,022 deaths – or 16 deaths per million people. And South Korea has a near-sterling record of 33,287 cases and 516 deaths – or 10 deaths per million.

Contrasting strategies

The two countries deployed very different strategies to control Covid-19.

Japan’s tactics included minimizing hospital overload among those without serious symptoms by keeping tests low, while tracing cluster infections by leveraging efficient local health centers. For those with symptoms, sound treatment protocols developed to combat respiratory diseases among senior citizens of the world’s oldest countries were deployed.

South Korea has pioneered widespread testing facilities and incentivized the public to monitor by offering free tests for those found to be infected.

Health workers test commuters as they drive by in South Korea, whose centralized governance system has contained the pandemic relatively well. Photo: YouTube / NBC / Screen Grab

It has also created a highly efficient contact tracing system based on the databases of multiple bodies – police CCTV networks, mobile phone operators, credit card companies, public transport companies – allowing “push button” tracing of infected people.

It has also systemized social distancing guidelines that authorities can adjust, tightening or loosening as the situation demands.  

And in both countries, the authorities’ strategies were underwritten by compliant publics which willingly upgraded habitual cultural practices of mask-wearing and frequent hand washing as defenses against infection.